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Thinking Texas Football Preview Excerpt - Notre Dame

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Here's an opponent excerpt from TTF 2015.

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While much of the focus of the 2015 Longhorn Football Prospectus is on Texas, a good bit of the preview is dedicated to Longhorn opponents and the Big 12 in general.  Here's an excerpt of the first Longhorn opponent: the Fighting Irish of Notre Dame.

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ND

Last meeting

1996 in Austin.  Notre Dame beat Texas 27-24 on a last second 39 yard field goal.  Shon Mitchell and Ricky Williams combined for 162 combined rushing yards on 27 carries.  Dissatisfied with six yards per carry from his running backs, John Mackovic pushed a sputtering passing game late, the offense flatlined, and the Irish scored the game's last 10 points.  The highlight of the game was Longhorn cornerback Bryant Westbrook nearly decapitating Notre Dame RB Randy Kinder on a sideline option pitch.  Go pull it up on Youtube.  It's worth your time.  The Irish are 8-2 against Texas all-time and have won the last four straight.

Overview

Brian Kelly took over a failing program weary of the decided schematic advantages and rampant carb loading of the Charlie Weis era (Weis was 16-21 over his last three seasons) and turned in back-to-back 8-5 seasons while revitalizing national recruiting and re-teaching the fundamentals that had eroded under Charlie's high concept NFL approach.  Kelly's 3rd year breakthrough in 2012 featured a 12-1 Irish team that played in the National Championship game.  Despite the shellacking they took from Alabama, the Irish were back!  Make that moving backwards.  They regressed to 17-9 over the next two seasons and the Rocknean rumblings of 2012 emanating from the bowels of history were written off as gas.  The Irish are coming off of a disappointing 8-5 2014 campaign, low-lighted by academic scandal, player suspensions, rampant injuries and four consecutive late season losses to Arizona State, Northwestern, Louisville and USC.

The Irish plummeted from a 6-0 start because their defense capitulated to injuries over the second half of the season and QB Everett Golson deteriorated into a turnover factory.  Later, Golson was replaced by young dual threat Malik Zaire who showed some pluck, live feet and an ability to minimize mistakes.  This stabilized the Irish, who responded with a surprising bowl upset over LSU.  Now the Blue and Gold outlook seems promising again.  The Irish return 18 starters, a potential solution at QB, a good offensive cast, an entire defensive two deep and more staff consistency. Though the potential for preseason Notre Dame overhype is real, they are well enough resourced to make a real run at the Top 10.  It will depend largely on their defense maturing and Zaire playing with enough poise to take advantage of an explosive complement of skill players.  A 45-20 record isn't shameful, but Brian Kelly's legacy in South Bend can only be assured by a consistent presence in the Top 10.  This year, the Irish make their push.

Challenges

Season openers favor the home team in college football.  Despite their recent program woes, the Irish are still a respectable 15-4 in season home openers since 1995.  Oddsmakers typically assign the Irish a base +4.75 point advantage in their home games and it stands to reason that a high profile opponent like Texas will draw a properly raucous game atmosphere.  Season openers also heavily favor teams with more experience.  The Irish feature 17 returning starters according to the preseason magazines, but it's really 18.  Cornerback KeiVarae Russell started 13 games as a true freshman and earned 1st team Freshman All-American accolades, but he missed the 2014 season to suspension.  These sorts of games are generally decided by a few critical mistakes that snowball into larger game momentum.  The Irish appear to be the team less likely to make those mistakes.

The Irish had a very capable, if turnover prone, offense last year that averaged 6.1 yards per play.  The best elements of that offense return and the negative turnover balance should resolve itself with more considered play from the QB position.  Their grab bag of goodies include a 1,000 yard receiver in Will Fuller and three more pass catchers who totalled more than 500 yards receiving (two of them are physical 220 pounders) and former elite state of Texas recruit TE Durham Smythe.  Running backs Tarean Folston and Greg Bryant are talented athletes, QB Malik Zaire is a gifted, powerful runner in the read option and their offensive line features three returning starters and a 6-8, 315 pound young right tackle who pitched a shutout against LSU in the bowl game.  This offense is potentially impressive and the Texas linebackers will receive little sympathy from the Irish if they're not up to game speed yet.

Opportunities

Sophomore Malik Zaire has shown promise and game management skills, but the home opener against Texas will be his third start as a signal caller.  He's thrown a grand total of 35 collegiate passes.  Zaire is a thickly built 6-0, 220 pound athlete with good running ability who will use his legs in the read option and when given the opportunity as a scrambler.  The Irish have used him conservatively in the passing game, preferring to take their shots downfield on play action after establishing the run.  Kelly will push Zaire to his capacities to take advantage of a talented Notre Dame offense with experienced NFL quality receivers and a nice pair of running backs, but he doesn't want to put the game on his shoulders if he can help it.  If Texas can put Notre Dame into predictable passing downs, Vance Bedford will have a chance to create indecision, turnovers and the mayhem necessary to inflict an upset road loss.

The Irish ranked 86th in overall special teams efficiency last year, largely due to poor coverage units, inaccurate field goal kicking over 40 yards and a tepid return game.  They lose kicker/punter Kyle Brindza and will have to demonstrate significant improvement in this phase of the game if they're going to maximize their 2015 campaign.

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That's a small taste.  There are 30,000+ more words in the preview to enjoy if you're so inclined.